Fibromyalgia and Aging

“Life has got to be lived-that’s all there is to it. At seventy, I would say that advantage is that you take life more calmly. You know that “this,too, shall pass!”, Eleanor Roosevelt

In my book I write about the confusion in the research regarding whether or not fibromyalgia improves (or not) with aging. I now know that there is no easy answer to that question and that it may improve for some but for many the opposite is true. Aging brings about its own aches, pains and fatigue that often cannot be differentiated from those of fibromyalgia. In fact, both may  be exacerbated as one ages.

I can only speak to my own experience, which I document and ponder about regularly, therefore this blog is not intended to give the answers to questions one may be seeking. I have not often heard directly from readers, who like myself, have known they have fibromyalgia for several decades. Yet, as I am able to know on a daily basis the kinds of searches that have led others to my site, I find that aging crops up often enough to be a concern of many. I have a dear friend, A, my age, who has had fibromyalgia for a long time along with multiple other serious health issues. Recently she had painful surgery on her foot and will be in a cast for many weeks. Her love of life, in spite of great obstacles, crises and painful episodes has not diminished. She is upbeat and enthusiastic, while remaining a highly sensitive person. By contrast, I recently had cataract surgery on both eyes and have become despondent and fearful, even more so than usual. It is easy for me to sink into despair and panic. Every small, new eye experience causes me great anxiety. I am difficult to be around. My point is that while I contend that all of us with fibromyalgia are highly sensitive persons, not all of us are of the exact same personality types. Therefore, it stands to reason that we will not all face old age in the same way.

I have written at length about the books, scientists, and other media presentations regarding neuroplasticity, that is, that the brain is not hard wired. Unlike previously thought, it is not so that the brain cannot change in adulthood. In fact, rigid and inflexible behaviours and thoughts can be changed at any stage of life. I am frequently heard saying, with tongue in cheek, that I want a personality change. If only it was possible to ask for a new way of looking at the world and it was that easy. Changing the brain: our ways of looking at our pain, our responses to small and major crises takes discipline, particularly when our upbringing, like mine, was fraught with fear and apprehension. The phenomenal new brain scan research which shows how our brains light up dramatically in areas that deal with emotions cannot fail to inspire even the most negative personalities.

So, now where do I go, do, now that I am a senior citizen? While I am not certain these days what the term ‘old’ implies, I do know that I am there. I read recently that 40 is the old age of young and that 50 is the young age of old. So this blog may be of interest to the 50s and upward readers, particularly women since  menopause definitely signals that she is now an older woman. For men the process is not quite as dramatic. At menopause women usually have some symptoms that are unusual and can mimic fibromyalgia (for example, brain fog, aches and pains, more fatigue than previously noted, etc). It becomes more difficult to sort through what can be attributed to menopause, aging and/or fibromyalgia.  Someone said to me this week that aging does not come without a heavy price. Combine that with fibromyalgia and the price is heavy indeed! The challenges of changing the brain are enormous as we age. I think they are less so for my friend A who is optimistic to begin with and that those of us with a higher degree of pessimism have many more struggles. But then, what are the alternatives? As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “life has got to be lived-that’s all there is to it”. I wish I had known that sensible, astounding woman. Get on with it and as we Canadians embrace this Thanksgiving holiday week-end, be thankful we can change our ways of being in the world, in spite of our day to day creaking joints, daunting muscle pains and need for naps to ease the fatigue.

Not to leave the reader with too much negativity I want to point out that strides have been made in understanding more about fibromyalgia. When I wrote my book I knew then (although not many were acknowledging it yet) that FM was caused by a hyper-aroused nervous system. Now it is a firmly established fact  and few dispute it. The search for a virus, endocrine disorder or multiple other kinds of an actual disease entity is slowly ending. So, it behooves us to find ways of changing our brains with the phenomenal advances that have been made in that direction, that is, brain research. We cannot rely on any others to cure us of this dis-ease. We are in charge of our own overly stimulated nervous systems, but years of over extending ourselves with our hypersensitivities has taken its toll. We cannot cure ourselves but we can take steps to help us live with this condition more effectively, then our attitudes towards life will be reflected in our brain pathways. It is our brains that we want to not only change from pain to more joy, but to help with our memory. Once again therefore, we must turn to the practice of minfulness meditation which can decrease the level of negativity, relieve anxiety and help maintain a more stable mind that we all aspire towards.

Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians! turkey '10'T'givingFor those of us with fibromyalgia we are to remember that organizing the feasts of the holiday should not be more than we can handle. Take a nap and if possible let others cook that turkey:-)! For those older ones among us let the younger ones take over. We have earned our rest! There are SOME benefits that come with old age.

12 comments

  1. Carolyn Thomas says:

    Hello again Barbara

    Yet again, your comments about the issues facing those living with fibromyalgia seem oh-so-relevant to many of us heart attack survivors as well.

    I especially appreciated your candor when comparing your reaction after eye surgery to your friend’s much more cheerful reaction to her own medical procedure.

    Comparing ourselves to how much better others seem to be coping with their diagnosis is very common for heart patients – both young and old. And every heart patient seems to have an uncle or cousin or next-door neighbour who has survived a massive cardiac event and quintuple bypass and was right at death’s door – yet is now tapdancing through life and running marathons and travelling the world. “So what’s wrong with ME?!” we want to ask, as our own tapdancing dreams seem to fade every day.

    I’ve been reading more and more lately on the subject of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’s link with heart disease (emerging research shows that as many as 30% of heart attack survivors have undiagnosed PTSD) and one study last night leaped out at me. Although the specific scenario may be different in fibromyalgia (PTSD usually involves one specific incident of trauma as opposed to a chronic illness diagnosis), there are some clear similarities that made sense.

    This study, for example, listed factors that tend to increase the likelihood of an individual developing PTSD. Even in combat, researchers point out, not all soldiers who survive exactly the same traumatic event in battle will react the same. One may emerge seemingly unaffected – the other may suffer serious debilitating psychological and physical symptoms that last for years or end in suicide. One contributing risk factor seems to be the victim’s own personal life history leading up to that trauma. When the stressor is the latest in a long line of stressors, the accumulative effect can be magnified many times compared to its impact if merely an isolated or rare event.

    In bereavement counselling, they call this ‘complicated grief’. For example, we experience grief when a loved one dies. But if that death follows a series of other losses (having to move to a new home, chronic or acute illness, losing one’s job, family feud, another death of somebody we care about) we can feel a grief that a the time may SEEM out of proportion to the loss.

    I’ve frequently wondered why my own response to cardiovascular disease seems so drawn out (compared to all those perky cousins, uncles and neighbours who are busy tapdancing!) I “should” be back at work by now. I “should” have more energy. I “should” be capable of doing more. My cardiac symptoms “should” be going away by now. I wrote about this recently in “The New Country Called Heart Disease” at http://myheartsisters.org/2010/10/09/new-country/

    I hope you enjoyed a RELAXING Thanksgiving weekend! Here on the West Coast, we had our annual potluck PICNIC turkey dinner at a local provincial park with about 25 family and friends in the sunshine!

    Cheers,
    C.

  2. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Thanks once again C for your wonderful comments. Of late I have been wondering how useful support groups actually are if we continue to re-iterate our stories over and over again. There isn’t anyone who can train our brains to receive more positive messages other than ourselves. It is a lonely and difficult journey, but we have to develop those strategies if we don’t want to keep on identifying us with our conditions. As we continue to re-tell our stories our nervous systems keep on remembering trauma. What are your thoughts on this?
    Barbara

  3. Carolyn Thomas says:

    Oh, I’m inclined to agree with you about support groups, particularly ongoing long-term groups. You once wrote here of a FM “support” group in Toronto where the group meets regularly but the group rule is “no whining”.

    I can understand that after a certain point, it’s like picking at scabs. It may also feed the “poor me/victim” stance which is a very uncomfortable position to maintain, or (worse!) group members will try to TOP each other’s stories! “You think YOU’VE got pain?!? Let me tell you about PAIN!”

    On the other hand, both you and I have in common the reality that we #1. live with a chronic condition and #2. spend a fair chunk of our lives writing, reading, researching, speaking and thinking intensely about this condition for our respective blogs.

    I’m curious about your thoughts on whether we might also be “identifying ourselves with our conditions”?

    Cheers,
    C.

  4. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Hi! I believe that we are identifying ourselves with our conditions. I am trying to think up ways in which this website becomes an upbeat one, rather than continually focussing on ‘symptoms’. It isn’t easy as I personally sink into this pattern myself. I know the strategies for changing my brain but living them is my challenge. It is easy to fall into a state of despair!

  5. Williemae Aquilera says:

    All these conditions that appear to have no physical trigger, are the ones that cause most suffering to the bearer, that know something is out of place, and just can’t understand why. Usefull ideas such as the ones you talk about, proves a big help to all of us that share this condition. Let’s be persistent and don’t drop the guard and we will be out of this real fast.

  6. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    I don’t think we will be out of this ‘real fast’ as fibromyalgia has taken its toll on us and we are usually prone to magnification and catastrophic thinking. We jump to conclusions about our various symptoms and then develop an anxiety prone brain. BUT I do believe we can begin to recognize the triggers and work hard to retrain our brains! Thanks for your comments, Barbara

  7. Ann Starke says:

    I just discovered your site and am delighted to find others who are over 50+ and are wondering what is going to happen to our lives with fibro as we age. My father is 97, and I am not delighted, because I can imagine nothing worse than over 30 years more with fibro and other ailments getting worse. I also have sciatica and other back problems which mix and match with the fibro and cause me to visit my wonderful doctor who tries valiantly to differentiate among my various problems. Results are the same. Lots of pain, fatigue et al.
    Surprisingly I do manage to be happy a lot of the time. My friends know that I will be at a certain place or event if I can. Very often I can’t. As you well know. I sleep a lot. It still surprises me. Even after many years. I went on disability in 1988 and got social security in 1992.I was 48. Christmas dinner was out at a local cafe. My house is a mess a lot of the time. too bad. I have friends who clean for me when they cannot stand it any more. Like most of us, I can do very little at a time. It is a bitch. I take medication for sleep which helps. Because of my other back problems, I am on medications for those. They get me out of bed in the morning. The pain does not go away, but it is doable for brief periods of time. Exercise is almost impossible. I always end up in a flare. Thank God for a very understanding husband and family.
    I do wish that I could go shopping for hours again. I miss that. My shopping trips are a lot shorter now. But sometimes I am in a good period and I enjoy the hell out of it.
    Love your blog.
    Ann

  8. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Hi Ann: it is lovely to have such an upbeat letter from you as we close out the year 2010.While you suffer dramatically from this demon of ours your spirit is uplifting. You could be writing about me, or any of us, as we all share these stories. Some of us cope better than others and many of us become very overwhelmed. However, i’ll bet all of us have moments of joy along with our frustrations.Thank you for your compliments on the blogs. Happy new year, Barbara

  9. Margaret Raye says:

    Hello Barbara:
    I too have just found this totally by accident. I think I was looking at “Fit Over 50”. A month ago I was determined to not be flabby and started walking and sprint walking. I was so excited! Once again, I was also determined that I don’t have fibromyalgia, that maybe I did, but not anymore. I suffered after my great idea of exercising; not only collapsing in a bundle of fatigue and pain but also got a virus that has persisted for a month. I was hospitalized with PTSD years ago and somehow to hear that may have caused or increased the likely hood of getting Fibromyalgia. I also have an autoimmune disorder “Hashimoto’s” which destroys the thyroid. I have moved twice in the past 3 years and 2 months ago my mother died. I’m complaining to myself that I want to do thus and so but what I want to report is that I’m doing well. I have really tried each day to enjoy something. These past few days the weather has been beautiful! It is cold, but the sunshine is great. I’m going out walking (not sprinting) and it really helps. I’m living in Japan now and they don’t believe in Fibromyalgia or anything that may be related. I barely speak any Japanese so I have to somehow take care of myself. I’m lucky though, my husband cooks, does the shopping, and does the dishes. I’m able to work part time and have a terrific time doing it. I go to bed at 7 pm and get up at 5 a,m, too long I always say 🙂 I love the idea of changing the way we think. Thank you for the encouragement in my last year of the 50’s.

  10. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Thank you Margaret: PTSD will certainly bring on fibromyalgia! It stands to reason too that since : 1) many post menopausal women have hypothyroidism and 2) adrenal fatigue goes with fibromyalgia, that our thyroids would also be compromised with fibromyalgia (like yours and mine). I loved reading your post as it was not one of just gloom and doom, rather that older women have a wonderful spirit that helps dealing with adversity. I write about that in my book! Too bad the people in Japan don’t believe in fibromyalgia since it is a universal condition. Lack of reporting? Stoical people? Inability of physicians to deal with the issues? So many probable reasons. I wish I could stay in bed as long as you do but I find I stiffen after 8 hours and need to get up and move! Happy new year!!!! Barbara

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